Stone Work

Used with permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy


The larger stone work was usually made for the community rather than individuals. In Egypt, limestone was the material of the land, and was found in the Eocene cliffs around the Nile Valley along 400 miles. Red granite, quartzite sandstone, colored marble, syenite, basalt, and obsidian were used. The great monuments of Egyptian antiquity are not available, but smaller objects, and fragments of sculpture and reliefs, are.

The Greeks used only white marble gained from quarries in Mount Pentelkon, near Athens. This deep honey-color marble had a fine grain. The marbles from Naxos, Paros, and Thasos were more crystalline. These marbles were used more in the Archaic period. These statues that have come to us today were from temples, sanctuaries, and tombs, or were a kind of limestone sculpture primarily used for architectural decorations. These items rarely appear for the collector, and the prices are only for the wealthy connoisseur. Cyprot limestone figures are the most affordable today.

Small statues from the Cyclades in the 3rd millennium B.C. now command very high prices today. Smaller Hellenistic sculpture is available today, and will bring strong prices. Many art historians believe this was the pinnacle of art achievement. Roman sculpture is available, and generally it is very much the same as Greek sculpture. While the quality is less, the Romans copied the Greek originals down to the 1st century B.C. Marble sculpture was produced all through the Roman Empire. Notable centers of sculpture making were Palmyra, Alexandria, and Aphrodisias in the province of Asia. The stone used for Roman sculpture was from the region of Carrara. A fine white marble with gray veins was also used. The high point of Roman sculpture was reached during the reigns of Antoninus Pius through Marcus Aurelius. The 3rd century A.D. saw a decline to the stylized art of the Constantine period. 

Small stone work is among man's earliest expressions of art and utility. The earliest examples are stone chipped axeheads, scrapers, and arrowheads. The tools are found in northeast Africa, Asia, and Europe.

At the dawn of civilization, small stone amulets, stamp seals, and beads started to be made, revealing information about art, myth, and ritual of the civilizations in and around the Tigris-Euphrates.

The earliest  prehistoric stone work was produced around the 7th-5th millennium B.C. in the form of simply carved stamp seals with a carved flat surface, and pierced for suspension. By the early ceramic phase they become more numerous, and begin to take on defined shapes, such as oval hemispheroids, gable hemispheroids, high and low gables, pyramids, and loop with square base, pyramid base, and oval base. The carved designs on the base can be varied mostly with geometic and animal motifs. Throughout this period, up to 800 B.C., various animal stamp seals were produced, along with simple animal amulets. These seals have been viewed as having amuletic powers, and providing protection and good fortune to the owner. 

The cylinder seal began during the Uruk period, around 3200 B.C., in southern Mesopotamia. The cylinder seals continued to be made through the Neo-Assyrian period, in the 7th century B.C. At the end of this period, the Neo-Babylonian stamp seal became in vogue.

The cylinder seal has been widely collected throughout the centuries. Five collections have been put together during the last seventy-five years, and today it remains a popular collecting field. Certain stones were used at different periods. Agates, steatite, calcite, serpentine, quarts, limestone, and lapis lazuli were used in the earlier period. During the turn of the 2nd millennium B.C., hematite was used extensively, especially during the Old Babylonian period. During the later periods, we also find fine chalcedony, carnelian, and crystal, along with faience cylinder seals.

The imagery engraved on the seals express the beliefs of these early empires. The seals remain our most complete expression of visual art. The fineness of the engraver's art is expressed, especially during the Assyrian through the Old Babylonian periods.

The process of making a cylinder seal was as follows: first, shaping the seal then drilling the hole (from each end), and then engraving the design. The first seals were drilled by hand, but by the 18th century B.C., the bow drill was used. We can tell what tool was used from the style of the seal. The simplest tool was a graver, often flint, used for soft stone. It had a beveled tip that created lines of thickness and depth. Ball and tubular drills made circular patterns. Harder stones were made with use of metal tools, and abrasives using quartz sand and emery. The images on these seals could be geometric, horned animals, heroes and beasts in combat, presentation scenes, daily life scene, and various deities.

The Greeks and Etruscans engraved hard, fine stones into intaglio gems. They reveal exceptional art in miniature. The Romans continued this practice. During the Roman Republic period, glass intaglios were widely used. In the 2nd-3rd century A.D., stone was most widely used for intaglios. Carved cameos were also finely made.